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There's more to a name when it comes to birds

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August 9, 2009
Swainson’s thrush was named after the Englishman, William Swainson (1789-1855), who had an early interest in nature and later became a prolific wildlife artist.

Blackburnian warbler, Wilson's storm-petrel, Swainson's thrush, Lincoln's sparrow. The common names of all of these birds, common in Maine, are based on a person's name. I'll bet most of these people aren't familiar to you. In today's column, I will give you a little background on the people whose names are commemorated in the bird names.

The Blackburnian warbler is one of our most striking warblers, with its fiery orange throat and bold black plumage above. This warbler is named after either Anna Blackburne (1726-1793) or her brother, Ashton Blackburne (1730-1780).

Anna was an English naturalist. She never visited the New World but did have a strong interest in the birds of the New World. She maintained a collection of North American birds in her natural history museum in Orford in the north of England.

Ashton moved to North America and lived in Hempstead, N.Y. He collected birds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey that he sent to his sister for her museum.

Among the specimens Ashton collected was a Blackburnian warbler. Thomas Pennant, a naturalist from Orford, saw the specimen in Anne's collection and prepared the first scientific description of the species. He gave it the name of Blackburnian warbler but it is not clear if Pennant named the warbler for Ashton or Anne.

The Wilson whose name is commemorated in Wilson's storm-petrel, Wilson's plover, Wilson's phalarope, Wilson's warbler and Wilson's snipe is Alexander Wilson (1766-1813). Wilson played an important role in the development of North American ornithology.

Wilson was a Scot who immigrated to the United States in 1794. He taught school for seven years in the Philadelphia area and then decided to make a collection of the birds of eastern North America. From 1803 until his death in 1814, Wilson devoted himself to producing the first book on the birds of North America, which he called American Ornithology.

Wilson's travels took him from Philadelphia along the Eastern Seaboard to Savannah, Ga., and then north via boat to New York. Another trip took him from Philadelphia to the Southeast through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana with another boat trip back to New York from New Orleans. His visit to Natchez provided one of the ornithological highlights of his life, the darkening of the skies for hours by millions and millions of passenger pigeons.

Wilson was a contemporary of Audubon and they met briefly. Wilson's artistic skills were rudimentary compared to Audubon but Wilson's keen eye and perseverance made him a better field ornithologist than Audubon.

In addition to the bird species listed above, Wilson's name is commemorated in the name of one of the major ornithological associations in North America, the Wilson Ornithological Society.

Swainson's thrush was named after the Englishman William Swainson (1789-1855). He had an early interest in nature. His father secured a post for him in Italy in 1808, which gave him plenty of time to study animals, particularly fish and snails. Poor health forced him from the army in 1815 but by 1816, he felt well enough to travel to Brazil for a collecting expedition. He returned to England with 760 bird specimens and large numbers of other species.

Swainson developed skills as a wildlife artist, drawing the biological material he had collected. In fact, he was a far more prolific wildlife artist than Audubon. Based on specimens collected by William Bullock in northern Mexico, Swainson drew and described a number of birds common in the United States including acorn woodpecker, black phoebe, violet-green swallow and western bluebird.

Audubon visited Swainson and his family on a trip to England. Audubon asked Swainson to help write the Ornithological Biography, the text that would accompany Audubon's volumes of prints, The Birds of North America.

Swainson refused because Audubon would not give him co-authorship nor a sufficient fee.

Swainson's name is commemorated in three species: the widespread western raptor, Swainson's hawk; the southeastern Swainson's warbler and our Swainson's thrush.

Lincoln's sparrow is a fairly common breeder in bogs and cleacuts in the northern half of Maine. The name commemorates a Mainer, Thomas Lincoln (1812-1883). Lincoln met John James Audubon in 1832 and accompanied Audubon on an expedition to Labrador in 1833. Their trip began in Eastport and included stops in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The only new species discovered on this expedition was a sparrow, which Audubon described and named after his companion.

After the trip was over, Lincoln returned to the family estate in Dennysville and never did much traveling after that. He studied briefly at Bowdoin College but left before receiving a degree. He and his brother managed the 10,000 acres of the family property. The Lincoln house still stands. It is now the Lincoln House Country Inn, the oldest house in Dennysville.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:

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